Tag Archives: book club

Book Review: The Trouble With Goats and Sheep – Joanna Cannon

The Trouble With Goats and Sheep is a nostalgia trip back to a childhood in the 1970s. Ten year olds Grace and Tilly have the long, hot, heatwave summer of 1976 ahead of them. They need a project and they decide to find God. They know God is ‘everywhere’ (and each time they say this, they gesture around themselves, waving their arms around).

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blue wall. 

They have decided to find God because Mrs Creasy, a neighbour, has gone missing. This provides the central mystery to this easy to read, nostalgic trip. We quickly get to know the cast of characters who live on the same close as Grace. They know the ins and outs of each others lives and have been a close community for a long time. Very quickly we learn that a *bad thing* happened 10 years previously. This involves child abduction, the ‘weirdo’ at number 11, a house fire, and a death.

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gold glittery shoes

The themes get quite dark, but it’s handled in a very light way, made easier by most of it being told from the perspective of children. There are some very funny exchanges between the ten year olds and the adults. There are some lovely descriptions and a lot of personification is used. I liked this, it gave it an unusual feel, but felt cosy at the same time.

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reading at lunchtime amongst the desk debris.

This was a book club read, and most people really, really enjoyed it. I think the people who go the nostalgia hit for the 1970s liked it the most. I’m not a child of the 1970s, but its close neighbour the 1980s, and lots of the nostalgia was still relevant to me. Payphones and sherbet dip. A local who doesn’t fit in, sexism, and roller skates! It’s a quite light book, though it does deal with dark themes, it still feels like a bit of a break from reading *difficult* books, and a welcome one 🙂 I breezed through all 450 pages in a few days.

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Book review: Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood

Alias Grace is a really quite long book about the 1840s Canadian murderess Grace Marks. She’s a real person, who was jailed for the murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, when she was 16. She is also thought to have murdered his lover, and housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. Alias Grace is Margaret Atwood’s fictionalised version of this story, weaving the facts of the case with a constructed story of Grace and her life up to, and beyond the conviction.

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Reading at the bus stop on a very rainy night. 

I should point out that I quite enjoyed the story, but it’s definitely not really my sort of thing, and I wouldn’t have got through all 550 pages if it hadn’t been for a book club I go to. Having said that, most of the other people at book club absolutely loved it.

Margaret Atwood brilliantly builds up and creates the world that Grace inhabits. The detail about everything is rich and stunningly done. I never got bored of the descriptions it all helped put me right in Grace’s world. It has recently been made into a Netflix series and I think it will definitely be worth watching.

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Reading in my space pants. 

We meet Grace as a young girl in Ireland. Her family are poor, with lots of children and a feckless Father. They decide to begin a new life in America, and make the frankly horrendous journey over on a boat. During this trip, her Mother dies. Then Grace abandons her family after they settle in Canada, as a survival mechanism to get away from her abusive Father. From here she lives in as a house maid.

We follow Grace through several jobs, in different houses, until the terrible events that put her in jail. At this point she is still only sixteen years old. These recollections are told to a doctor, Simon Jenkins, who is studying Grace to try and make an assessment of her mind at the time of the crime. The whole book is centred around their meetings. I liked the character of Dr Jenkins, who is entirely fictionalised. While he tries to maintain a respectable, professional image to Grace, his personal life begins to break down. He’s under constant pressure from his family to settle down, and his letter exchanges with his Mother are excellent.

As one season’s crop of girls proceeds into engagement and marriage, younger ones keep sprouting up, like tulips in May. They are now so young in relation to Simon that he has trouble conversing with them; it’s like talking to a basketful of kittens.

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We learn about Grace’s friend, Mary Whitney, firstly through several quotes she uses to describe things in a very funny, but coarse way. She uses Mary’s quotes to say things she would never dare, as Grace is quite prudish. Mary is slightly older than Grace, and she assumes the big sister role that Grace so desperately needs. She teaches her the ways of the job and how to get along well in life. Later, we hear Grace’s story about Mary and learn a lot more about her. She is my favourite character, she has such spark.

Mary said I might be very young, and as ignorant as an egg, but I was bright as a new penny, and the difference between stupid and ignorant was that ignorant could learn.

Grace’s story is interesting, but this book is a triumph of describing the domestic situation of 1840s Canada. There’s also a, quite Victorian, supernatural element to the story. I would recommend it of you are interested in this time, or a fan of historical fiction with a factual basis. Probably if none of those things really appeal, I would wait for the Netflix show (it looks really good! see the trailer below)

Book Review: The Seed Collectors – Scarlett Thomas

The Seed Collectors is a magical book about complex family relationships and the seeking of enlightenment. The Gardener family are mostly botanists – we learn about five generations of them. Three members of one generation went missing during the search for a mysterious, deadly plant that is rumoured to be a short cut to achieving enlightenment.

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The Seed Collectors on Blackpool Prom.

Despite the whole enlightenment thing, which might not be your cup of tea (things like that generally aren’t really mine), it’s really a story of relationships. The Gardener’s could be generally thought of as rich, self-centred and interesting. Oh, and fairly obsessed with sex.

The cast of characters is a little overwhelming, but a few highlights are Beatrix: The oldest living Gardener. She likes investing in fashion brands and watching pornography on her computer. Her son, Augustus, who sadly doesn’t appear much.

The main characters are the children of Augustus and his generation. Charlie – ultra controlled and paleo loving, Clem – an acclaimed wildlife documentary maker. Their cousin Bryony – completely uncontrolled when it comes to eating, drinking and spending money, simultaneously devastated by her size. Another main character is Fleur – daughter of Briar Rose, one of the missing, and taken in by the family. She has worked for free learning how to run the hippy retreat in the family mansion. And don’t forget the Robin who lives in the garden of the mansion, he narrates a few chapters!

There are so many children, spouses, friends and colleagues, and the relationships are even more complex than you originally think. You get a family tree at the start of the book, and an updated one at the end. It was really useful because it took a while to figure out how this myriad of people were connected. There’s so many of them you only get a brief visit to some which seems a shame. I think you might have been able to lose some without much damage to the story and it might have made it less unwieldy.

Oleander’s funeral is the opening chapter of the book and some of the strange items inherited are key to the story of the mystical, mysterious plant the older Gardeners were looking for when they disappeared, presumed dead. Oleander is an older relative who runs the hippy retreat Mansion.

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I enjoyed The Seed Collectors as a bit of escapism. I liked going into this world of rich, selfish people who basically destroy their own lives and those around them by their awful behaviour! It’s not a difficult read, and it’s hilarious in many parts. There’s a short sex scene towards the end of the book that was so awful, it was funny. Awful because of the characters behaviour, not awfully written.

Interestingly, this was a book club choice and we met yesterday to discuss it. Only 2 of us, out of 12 or so, liked it! Many hated it so much they didn’t finish.

Have you read The Seed Collectors? What did you think?

 

Book review: Reservoir 13 – Jon McGregor

Oh my god. I just don’t give a shit about the pheasant chicks, or the brambles in the allotment, or the hawthorn bush, or the fieldfares in the meadow. Reservoir 13 has 13 chapters, each spanning a year in the life of a Peak District village. It opens with the disappearance of a 13 year old visitor to the village, Becky, or Bex, or Rebecca. She is lost on the moors and no trace of her is found.

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The disappearance is revisited fairly often in the following chapters. A lot of them ending with a statement about her disappearance. There is repetition between the 13 chapters as the girl is still missing, her whereabouts unknown, but life still has to move forward.

We slowly get to know a lot of characters in the village. Some move on, some move in. Relationships start, and relationships end. We get snippets of village life. After around 8 years worth of tiny fragments of village life I started getting who everyone was. They often do the same things year after year because that’s what people do.

Almost every other sentence is a statement about what the natural world is doing at that time of year. Good god, it was tedious.

At first I wondered if I wasn’t enjoying it because I was listening to an audio book version of it. I’ve never really done audio books (except the Harry Potter series about 10 years ago when I had a particularly long commute to work) but the kindle version and paper book versions were really expensive, so I’ve got an audible trial. I needed to read it this week because it’s my book club read and we are meeting this week (review will be published as we meet!). I’m now really glad I didn’t read this myself because looking at some reviews, there are hardly any paragraphs and speech isn’t distinguished from any other text?!

Other reviews of Reservoir 13 are full of praise. I just can’t join in. I’m so glad it’s over and feel a bit mad that I wasted my time on it. Perhaps I’m supposed to see something deeper. The reviews would have you believe that you really should. Well, I obviously like my fiction to be upfront and interesting at face value. I don’t want hidden depth behind a boring story.

I need to add in something positive… at least I know what a fieldfare is now.

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**spoiler alert**

 

You don’t even find out what happened to the girl. There is no story, no protagonist, nothing. It’s a monotonous, repetitive soap opera about some ordinary village folk who basically have the most depressing lives.

Urghhh

Book Review: The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

I have been looking forward to reading this book for a while. I’ve heard GREAT things about it. I was delighted to find out it’s the next book for a book club I’ve recently joined. As I started the book, I realised that I’ve read one of her books before… for another book club… and *whispers* I didn’t really like it. And that’s stating it very mildly.  Oh no I thought, no… don’t be the same. Don’t be the same. Don’t be the same. And happily, it isn’t.

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I enjoyed The Essex Serpent. It’s about friendship, love, surgery, odd characters, social housing, religion, superstition, small towns, cities, being female, domestic abuse, sea creatures, illness, and fossils, and everything in between. Mostly it’s a book that I struggled to place in time and this is part of its point. The main character is Cora Seabourne, a well off, recently widowed woman. She moves from London and get caught up in a sleepy Blackwater Estuary village and its panic over recent sightings of a monster in the sea, the so called Essex serpent. Cora’s link to the town is the local vicar, William Ransome. There’s a wide range of other characters, including Cora’s socially conscious companion Martha, Her husband’s surgeon, Luke Garrett. There’s Luke’s rich friend. There’s Cora, Will and Luke’s friends. There’s some strange children. There’s a poor Londoner and the man who is trying to kill him. I could go on… but the story successfully links them all and draws you in.

I started off finding it a bit strange that the main female characters are supposedly younger than me, but act like much older women. If Cora met her husband 17, I think somewhere she mentions having been with him for 15 years, and she has an 11 year old son, so she’s 32!?!? She acts like she’s 60. I couldn’t reconcile the characters behaviour with the age they supposedly are. She acts like a Victorian grandma. She acts… Victorian. Oh… is she Victorian?  I honestly got to 53% of the way through before I realised the book is set over 100 year ago! This is a triumph as far as I’m concerned. The characters could so easily just be eccentric modern people. Strange ones with no phones, who like the outdoors. There are department stores, cabs, trains, modern hospitals and surgery. The people like science, and geology, and engineering. It is all consistent with Victorian England, but not the one that comes to mind when I think about Victorian times. In the picture I have in my mind it is ‘a long way in the past’ and ‘very different to today’, but actually it isn’t that much different, with the obvious absence of most modern technology. Chuck away your iPhone and you could practically be back there!

I had a bit of an issue with some character names. The surgeon is described as short and has the nickname the Imp. So now he’s Tyrion Lannister in my mind, and Cora is from Downton Abby. I don’t think these are too far from the character descriptions, but it was a bit distracting.

The plot is rich, and the characters are convincing and well rounded – they all seem like actual people in my mind. I am not going to try and describe the plot beyond what I’ve already written. It has quite a large scope in themes, though the story is geographically small. I think you might get even more out of The Essex Serpent if you are familiar with it’s very real setting. I felt this when I read The Loney, as this is set near to where I live. I am familiar with London, but the Blackwater estuary, and Colchester, I am not familiar with.

Overall, the story is good and the characters great, though they really could do with having at bit more fun every now and then. The surprising fact that it is set in Victorian times while seeming modern, and the link this gives you with those usually far off seeming times, is brilliant.

 

Book Review: Lion – Saroo Brierley

Lion is Saroo Brierley’s moving life story. Until he was five years old he lived, with his family, in a western part of India. He then accidentally became trapped on a train and found himself in Calcutta, in the eastern part of India, 1500 miles away from home.

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With poor language skills and with the whole being five years old thing, he couldn’t find his own way home, and couldn’t get anyone to help him. He survived a truly frightening time on the streets.

Eventually, miraculously, he found himself being helped. His family couldn’t be found and so he was adopted by an Australian family.

Fast forward to him being around 30 years old and he realises Google Earth, and the little knowledge he has of where he grew up, can possibly allow him to locate his family.

It’s an amazing, terrible, horrifying story. I had to keep reminding myself that the early part of the story is only in the 1980s, and not a hundred years earlier than that. It’s written in quite a matter of fact style that I quite liked, but I could see how this could be a bit annoying to some readers. It’s quite obviously an extremely emotional story, but that is quite lacking in the storytelling.

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Saroo with his Australian mum and his birth mother.  Photo from www.thenational.ae

The book cover is Dev Patel playing Saroo in the film version. I haven’t seen it yet, but I can’t wait to. I think the story with the added heart string pulling emotional aspect will be stunning.  Also, the name of the book is a really sad, yet sweet, reveal moment in the book, so I won’t tell you now. 🙂

Book review: It Can’t Happen Here – Sinclair Lewis

I’m glad I’ve read this book, or am I just glad I’ve finished reading it? At almost 400 pages of dense text, it’s not helped by starting with 150 almost unreadable pages. It’s interesting though, and much better when the action really starts after Buzz Windrip is elected President.

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book and cat

I read this for a book club I’ve just joined. I’m not sure I’d have got through it if I hadn’t had a target to work too. In fact, I ended up working out exactly how many pages per day I needed to read to get it done. That’s not a good sign!

When I read the description I assumed it must be a very recent book. I couldn’t believe it’s from 1935. Does Sinclair Lewis own a time machine?

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It’s eerie how lots of this story parallels with recent events in America. I like this description of the wannabee President while he’s a campaigning Senator:

The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his “ideas” almost idiotic…

The story in It Can’t Happen Here centres on Doremus Jessop, a small town newspaper editor and his friends, family and acquaintances. It follows their lives as the country descends into fascism. It’s grim, unsettling, and makes you aware that it really could happen anywhere.

I found it a difficult read. Even after the startlingly unreadable first third, it’s really hard work. I wouldn’t normally pick up such a political book, so I was starting outside of my normal reading habits anyway. I’m glad I’ve finished it. I mean, I’m glad I’ve read it! But I will not need to read about politics, for fun, for a long, long time.

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it can!